When asked what he thought the most important quality a writer should posses, Rawi Hage is reputed to have replied, “Luck”! Luck was not a factor in his winning the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award 2008, but the brilliance of his first novel, De Niro’s Game , a powerful, stark yet lyrical and compassionate book.
In this remarkable novel, however, luck is a central element. The title refers to the game of chance – to the death-defying game of Russian Roulette played by DeNiro in the film The Deer Hunter. Hage’s characters find themselves in a very different yet equally extreme situation – caught in the civil war raging in Beirut in the 1980’s. Hage’s writing allows the reader a shocking intimacy with the personal impact of such conflicts. Through the fate of his anti-heroes, George and Bassam, he shows how war can envelope lives – how one doesn’t have a choice in such situations. Concepts of guilt and innocence are left to flounder in the hail of bombs and the struggle for survival. Life itself becomes a game with no real winners, only scarred survivors whose estrangement is deeper than any bullet wound, and whose future seems darker than their blacked out city.
De Niro’s Game is also a compassionate novel of friendship and betrayal, of love and loss. The war-torn city of Beirut plays host to the bravura of the young men- a city full of marauding militia, cleverly compared with the mad dogs that also haunt its precincts – a city that gradually drags its inhabitants into the blood-red sands of extreme situations and heart-breaking betrayal.
En-route Hage employs an almost filmic prose style, a truly imagistic style that is both immediate and exciting, This produces a page-turning tour de force as the narrator, Bassam, dodges ten thousand bombs, enjoys ten thousand kisses, and eventually moves ten thousand miles from any sense of security or home.
In recounting Bassam’s struggle to escape Hage offers an explosive plot that is also effective as a meditation on war and its psychological cost. There is no easy resolution, no redemptive ending in this visceral account. There is, however, an uplifting and original lyricism to the writing, one where Hage’s imaginative flair fuses the present horror into passages of poetic intensity, The cadences of the Old Testament are there, as are angry Ginsbergian litanies as well as strong European echoes, especially of Camus’ The Outsider. Remarkably, a dark but rich sense of humour also surfaces in the narrator’s self-deprecating reflections.
This is a magnificent achievement for a writer writing in a third language. Luck has nothing to do with this novel’s selection. Its originality, its power, its lyricism, as well as its humane appeal all mark De Niro’s Game as the work of a major literary talent and make Rawi Hage a truly deserving winner.